Last Monday, Businessweek published an excerpt from a new book by David Fairhall, Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters. Besides the provocative title (which, by focusing on conflict does not help further our understanding about the challenges and opportunities that lie in the Arctic), the book looks rather interesting.
In the excerpt from Businessweek, Fairhall describes in brief the history of polar icebreakers, including their evolution to nuclear propulsion in Russia. “Today, a dozen countries operate icebreakers. Canada needs them in large numbers to cope with winter, not only in the Arctic but also in the St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay. Scandinavians use them to keep Baltic ports clear,” Fairhall writes. “The U.S. has strategic and scientific interests in both the Arctic and Antarctica, for which it has three polar-class vessels.”
Yet where it gets interesting – at least from a national security perspective – is the gap between U.S. and Russian icebreaking capabilities. As Fairhall explains, “Still, no one disputes the predominance that Russia achieved by adapting nuclear propulsion to icebreaking. These vessels need a great deal of power and the ability sometimes to remain at sea for long periods without refueling -- both things that a nuclear reactor can deliver.”
And beyond nuclear propulsion – which gives the Russians more robust capabilities – they also have a fleet that dwarfs the U.S. fleet of three non-nuclear icebreakers. According to a report by The New York Times in August 2008, “a resurgent Russia has been busy expanding its fleet of large oceangoing icebreakers to around 14, launching a large conventional icebreaker in May and, last year, the world’s largest icebreaker, named 50 Years of Victory, the newest of its seven nuclear-powered, pole-hardy ships.” Meanwhile, in August 2011, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Russia is expanding its Arctic presence: “Among other things, Moscow plans to build at least six more icebreakers and spend $33 billion to construct a year-round port on the Arctic shores.”
The National Academies of Science and the Coast Guard have been warning Congress for several years that the lack of funding to support growing U.S. icebreaking capabilities could, as the National Academies of Science warned in a 2007 report, put the United States “at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north [Arctic] and the south [Antarctic].” According to Fairfall:
In recent years, the U.S. has been stretched to find one or more powerful icebreakers to enable supply ships to reach the Antarctic scientific research station in McMurdo Sound. (On a couple of occasions, the Americans have had to ask the Russian icebreaker Krasin to help out.) A changing climate will put greater demands on the small U.S. polar fleet by opening up the Arctic to maritime transport, oil exploration and tourism. The U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining its freedom of navigation in the Arctic -- especially for naval vessels -- and the ability to conduct independent scientific research.
Given the announcement this morning that the congressional super committee has not been able to negotiate a deficit reduction deal, convincing appropriators on Capitol Hill that the United States needs to grow its polar icebreaking capabilities is going to be more difficult. But that should not give pause to those efforts to redress our lack of sufficient capability. If anything, this can be an opportunity for strategic planners to work through a little more about exactly what capabilities the United States needs in the Arctic.
To understand what capabilities we need, U.S. policymakers must first decide what it is the United States wants to do in the Arctic. How broad or narrow do we want our Arctic mission to be? Is it more than just the capability to support search and rescue operations? Eco-tourism? Interdicting illegal traffickers? Do we want a sustained, semi-permanent or permanent presence in the Arctic? These questions aren’t meant to be exhaustive; they are merely meant to get the conversation started. Answering these questions will help us decide what our capabilities should look like. If I have learned one thing in working closely with my colleagues in the maritime services, it is that you can’t have a ship that does everything – that ships have very specific roles for specific missions. Just saying we need icebreaking capabilities is not sufficient for understanding what we need to secure our interests. Certain icebreakers – conventional versus nuclear-powered, for example – offer you different capabilities. Which do we need? These questions are important – and are ever more important in an environment where federal dollars for funding these capabilities are scarce. Perhaps offering answers to these questions is the key to breaking through the frosty reception that icebreakers have received on the Hill.
Photo: The Coast Guard heavy icebreaker ship Polar Sea assists an international research expedition in the Arctic in November 2009. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.